Do job titles mean anything?
In some organisations, the word ‘executive’ in a job title means the position reports through to the CEO; in others it’s seriously used to describe call centre operators. The same principle applies to the word ‘manager’. In some workplaces, it defines those who are responsible for a team of employees; in others it refers to those who manage stuff rather than staff.
So how much value is there, really, in job titles?
The misleading thing about them is that they don’t tell you very much about what someone actually does. They may imply a certain level of status, but it’s not until you scratch below the surface that you realise the hollowness that exists.
Take, for example, the sole trader whose business card refers to him as the CEO or the managing director. He’s not, in reality, managing or directing anything (especially in a business comprising just one person) to justify such a grandiose headline. To most people, those types of descriptors normally characterise leaders of big companies. The sole trader, in his blatant attempt at pompous marketing, isn’t fooling anybody.
Conversely, the misleading nature of job titles can also have the opposite effect, whereby an individual’s true influence is understated. You most often see this in employees who are given management responsibilities without the job title to match. Why? Because that would necessitate a pay rise, a lengthy recruitment process, and the navigation of office politics. It’s much easier to delegate – or to, um, empower – than to follow through with what many find truly rewarding.
And what they tend to find rewarding, aside from the materialism of money and the egotism of eminence, is the pride that comes from being able to say they are now an <insert fancy new job title>.
One reason for this tendency is that job titles are very strongly associated with personal identity. When we meet someone new – either professionally or otherwise – one of the first questions we’re asked is: “So, what do you do?” It’s cringeworthy and shallow but it nonetheless persists. What we ‘do’, often summarised as a succinct title, immediately leaves an impression.
In 1999, a seminal analysis was conducted at Arizona State University on the notion of ‘dirty work’, which includes professions such as garbage collectors, janitors and prostitutes – jobs deemed by society to be lacking in prestige. Or, as the scholars more crudely put it, jobs seen as “disgusting or degrading”.
The researchers found some professions are more likely to attract putdowns and intrusive questions simply because of the negative connotations and stigma attached to them: “Ice-breaking rituals often institutionalise the exchange of occupational information … Thus, job titles serve as prominent identity badges.”
From a recruitment perspective, this overreliance on job titles poses several dilemmas. A poll across 2000 companies published in the Harvard Business Review last year revealed that 55 per cent of leaders, when they’re unable to find qualified candidates, choose instead to hire people based on their previous job titles. Forty-two per cent of them, foolishly, restrict their hiring decisions to this narrow and potentially deceptive criterion.
The solution, though, is a difficult one. Doing away with job titles is never going to happen. When searching for new employment on an online notice board, the job title is frequently what draws our attention first.
For employers, a position description is a more accurate reflection of a candidate’s employment history, but even that’s fraught with misinformation. Just because an employee’s previous jobs contained certain desirable activities doesn’t mean she was any good at them. Prior accomplishments are a more reliable indicator of future performance – certainly more so than the carefully crafted words embossed on a business card.
Is a fancy job title important to you? Why, or why not?
Follow James Adonis on Twitter: @jamesadonis